Tuesday, June 30, 2015

were it even desirable to maintain a doubt - Trollope writes a murder mystery

In Phineas Finn, the title character, an ambitious yet conscientious young Irishman of good family but little means is elected to Parliament with the assistance of a number of prominent women.  He is extremely good-looking, but also an embodiment of Trollope’s complex ideas of gentlemanliness.  To stay in Parliament, he both needs to marry well and to balance the interests of his party against his own integrity.  By the end if that novel, he has retired from the field in a novelistically satisfying manner.

That novel had more marriage proposal scenes than any Trollope novel I have encountered, including, thankfully Phineas Redux, which only has a half dozen or so, three of which are explicitly comic relief.  That still sounds like a lot.

Phineas returns to Parliament in Phineas Redux, and the romantic question returns, too; it is the position of the various women that takes so many pages to establish.

The reader, if he has duly studied the history of the age, will know that the Duke did make an offer to Madame Goesler, pressing it with all his eloquence, but [plot plot plot]  (Ch. 17)

The phrase in bold translates as “if he has read Phineas Finn.”  I believe Trollope meant that as a joke, but it no longer is – what better way to study the history of that age than read Trollope novels?

What a surprise, given all this, when in Chapter 47, Phineas Redux turns into a murder mystery, with police detectives and private detectives and clues and red herrings.  Did Phineas Finn, in a fit of rage, murder his political enemy in a dark alley?  Few writers today would wait until page 510 to spring the murder on their readers, but regardless, things should really cook now.

Except that now Trollope faces a serious problem.  He is employing an omniscient narrator, and unlike more shoddy writers understands what an omniscient narrator is.  Trollope does not cheat.  So Phineas Redux is a murder mystery for all of 24 pages, as the narrator visits various characters to get their reaction to the murder – the poison of gossip and rumor is a major theme of the novel – but soon enough, he has to move Phineas back on stage, and then, in my favorite passage in the novel, the mystery is called off due to the integrity of the narrator, a thematic parallel with the strict integrity of Phineas himself:

The reader need hardly be told that, as regards this great offence, Phineas Finn was as white as snow. The maintenance of any doubt on that matter, – were it even desirable to maintain a doubt, – would be altogether beyond the power of the present writer.  The reader has probably perceived [he has!], from the first moment of the discovery of the body on the steps at the end of the passage, that Mr. Bonteen had been killed by that ingenious gentleman [that other guy].  (Ch. 49)

The phrase in bold is concentrated Trollope.  It is not desirable to maintain a doubt.  Your desire for suspense in fiction is a moral flaw.  Trollope does generate a certain amount of suspense during the trial of Phineas Finn – will he be hanged by the neck until dead? seems unlikely – of the cheaper kind by using a trick I had previously seen in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7), in which the narrator is only omniscient regarding occurrences and characters in Great Britain.  Fog in Channel; continent cut off.  So the author has to dispatch characters to Europe to learn what is going on there.  An arbitrary but clear rule.  It is probably for the best that so few of his readers seem to notice what a formalist Trollope was.

21 comments:

  1. You write: "Your desire for suspense in fiction is a moral flaw." What a provocative statement you throw out there. I hope you will elaborate because I suddenly feel rather flawed given some of my reading interests. Egads!

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  2. Hey, that's Trollope, not me. I think it is an intellectual flaw. Quite different.

    What cruelty for an author to lie to the reader! What weakness for a reader to want an author to lie to him! I think that is close to Trollope. Suspense is an enemy of the kinds of truth available in fiction.

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    1. Hmmm. Yes, I guess I am intellectually flawed! So be it. But that suggests a few figurative comparisons. When I was growing up, I never understood chess but preferred instead checkers; later in life (once upon a time) my "drug" of preference was tap beer rather than fine wine; give me stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton rather than novels by Thomas Hardy and stories by Henry James. Shame on me. Perhaps Trollope is right up my alley!

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    2. Trollope is on the Hardy and James side of that divide.

      He does employ the kind of suspense that is fundamental to narrative: the suspense of what happens next. Trollope's omniscient narrator apparently has trouble looking forward in time. But when something does happen, the reader gets to know about it as soon as the narrator does.

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    3. You've been very patient with me. Even in my senescent confusion -- a cloud that continues to darken around me with each passing month -- I still know enough to recognize and appreciate kindness and patience. I may no longer be "up to" Hardy and James (i.e., they require so much concentration), but I might be "up to" Trollope. Even as I consider that possibility, I know that I will not be perceptive enough to fathom whatever depths might be there. So, I will content myself with the pleasures of the surface. Again, thank you for your patience.

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    4. Trollope's surfaces are quite pleasing.

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  3. I am with Trollope; withholding facts from the reader is a trick, and a cheap one at that. What's the Nabokov where he begins--the very first sentence--with the basic plot of the story, and then explains that the art of fiction is much greater than the plot? Anyone who's ever joyfully re-read a novel knows that plot is one of the lesser elements of great fiction.

    This attitude is what keeps me from writing proper detective stories.

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  4. Laughter in the Dark: "This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome."

    I should put those last four words up as a motto. Lolita also tells the entire story in the first few pages, but in a such a way that most readers do not even remember that those pages exist.

    A detective writer should not use an omniscient narrator. But even the first person narrators are usually hinky. If Dr. Watson or the Continental Op were writing non-fiction, their books would not look so much like fiction (and would have less phony suspense).

    Villette is the great example of a Victorian novel that uses all of the suspense devices to actively mock its readers. Suckers!

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    1. Hmmm. Now an insecure reader of crime-detective-mystery fiction might say that you are beginning to sound like a snob. But I wouldn't say such a thing. Instead, as I have noted a few moments ago on my blog -- Beyond Eastrod -- I have other more serious fish to fry.

      BTW, I have always enjoyed (even if I did not always understand) your postings. Au revoir!

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    2. "beginning to sound," very funny.

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    3. Withholding information from the reader is necessary; if the writer tells everything, there's no room for the reader. But, given the way I read, I'm always aware of it as a technique. Some uses I find more engaging: a puzzling detail that seems to change things piques my interest more than a cliffhanger.

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  5. Ah, Phineas Finn, one of my favourite characters, a man who can face up to adversity and calumny and still keep his whiskers presentable...

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  6. That's right, the whiskers! Phineas Redux is much less concerned with Finn's whiskers, although their one appearance is spectacular. It is a rumor that Phineas has been fired upon and that the bullet passed through his whiskers. That is how nice his beard is, that people gossip about it.

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  7. I read the Palliser novels almost forty years ago and the Barsetshire novels at least thirty years ago and I remember loving them. I fear, however, that I was too young then to appreciate Trollope's subtleties, as I have learned to appreciate the nuances of Dickens with multiple re-readings (and more life experiences). I hope to return to Trollope at some time in my now retired life, where I expect to enjoy the novels I read when I was in my salad days and perhaps too inexperienced to fully appreciate them.

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  8. Yes, plotting can be thought of as a technical information management problem. What to withhold and for how long. What is curious is that Trollope has consistent and understandable self-imposed rules.

    Cliffhangers are the woist. Effective but cheap.

    Christopher, I feel similarly. When I read the Barsetshire books 20 years ago I did not get very far below the surface. When I read them again in, let's say, another 20 years, I am sure I will see even more.

    It really helped to have read Fielding, Scott, and Thackeray in between.

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  9. I recently read a novel ("The Return of the Shadow," by Walter Gibson) in which a chapter actually ended with someone hanging over a cliff. I think Gibson meant it as a joke on the reader, which is another kind of withholding: how seriously does the writer take the story?

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  10. That's funny. If you're writing a story about The Shadow, cut the brakelines, right?

    Lots of current pulp writing - superhero comics, that is what I am actually thinking about - has the same problem. The adult audience is fairly sophisticated about narrative strategy, but also wants to enjoy the old childhood thrills. The result is that the best new stories are often nothing but commentary on the old stories.

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  11. "Return of the Shadow" was Gibson's first novel for the new paperback market, after the pulps had folded, so it was inevitably a comment on his past work. I suppose most books are comments on previous books, in one way or another. And I suppose the pulp techniques have been parodied so often that writers can't take them seriously. What we need now are more parodies of the plotless epiphany story...

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  12. more parodies of the plotless epiphany story - yes, good idea.

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  13. Phineas on trial for murder -- shocking plot twist! I am intrigued, and must move this up on the TBR list.

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  14. Yes, shocking. And Trollope does well with it.

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